The debate as to whether utilise machine translation or human translation services remains unsolved. Google translate has been operational for quite some time, however of recent Google introduced real time translator while Microsoft recently rolled out Skype translator. The question however holds whether this translation apps work efficiently.

There has been a long debate over time with both Google and Microsoft claiming that machine translation services work more efficiently and the translation agencies on the other hand reasoning to the contrary giving human translation as the best alternative/ option. Kevin Rawlinson of BBC tries to find out whether the translation apps really work.

To complete the task that was set by BBC Tech; Kevin Rawlinson took a selection of apps to Bilbao in the Spanish Basque country. According to Kevin, ”The first job was to find the northern city’s Guggenheim museum and ask what its most valuable work of art was” ”Getting to the museum was not a challenge; another Google app saw to that. The problem was getting my question across”.

Kevin opted for English to Spanish setting due to the fact Google translate doesn’t support Basque. The test was done with a volunteer who was familiar with the concept of real-time translators. The test revealed that much us the app was nearly perfect from indoors where there was no background noise, it initially struggled to convey relatively simple phrases.

Upon arrival at the Guggenheim, Kevin meets Begoña and asks her a question, “ok so the rise of the Guggenheim and I have got acid”?
”While it got it the second time round, the answer that came back was not exactly perfect: It was, at least, comprehensible. An inauspicious starts, nevertheless”. Said Kevin

Stiffer test

The translation app faced a stiffer test at nearby Moyua metro station where background noise and the rigours of real life; – which exposed what Rawlinson called perhaps its biggest weakness.
”The weather was crisp but dry when I managed to stop a woman at the building’s entrance to ask for the quickest route to the old town’s main square.
By the time she had grasped the concept of listening for a translation into Spanish and answering the question clearly and slowly – delivering the directions bit-by-bit and waiting for the app to catch up – a sudden hailstorm had struck, shaking her resolve to persevere with struggling software and British tourist alike” said Rawlinson.

The sharing between Rawlinson and the 22-year-old Yurena, involved the story of her first kiss.”Apparently, it was at a party in Bilbao. She cuddled up with Miguel on the sofa and then “muy bien”. The couple are still together”, said Yurena.
According to Kevin, ”a story was romantic indeed. Unfortunately, none of it told using Google’s real-time translator, which could not deal with the fact that she was speaking at the speed of a normal conversation. In the end, Yurena had to give up and type her message manually, pressing a button to get it translated into text Kevin Rawlinson to read.
According to Kevin, Yurena’s task was made no easier when Google Translate turned “can you speak slower, please” into “can you speak Spanish Big Show”.

Una selfie, por favor

Vocre as one of the most prominent other apps to provide real-time translations did not survive the test as well. At Bilbao’s bullfighting museum, it achieved a similar rate of success to Google’s.Converting between English and Spanish, it managed to convey a question about the bullring’s capacity relatively well.

The answer that came back from staff member Joaquín Vega was clearly mangled: “Around 14 thousandth people.”
”At nearby Cafeteria Concha, which was significantly louder, the same app had trouble picking out any speech at all. The barman there professed to speak very little English. But when the software took an age to detect my request to identify his bestselling pintxo – a word for Basque bar snacks – he opted to attempt an answer in my language, rather than to persevere with the smartphone”. Said Kevin

According to Rawlinson, ”if real-time translation apps can get it right, they could upend a lucrative sector. But the problems I experienced in Bilbao suggest that processor-powered translations still have far to go”.